Reducing the destructive power of floods

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Andy Johnson, guest columnist

On a recent morning, shortly after dawn, I stand with my wife and 9-year-old daughter (wearing her chore boots and pajamas) watching the Upper Iowa River rise over the fences in our lower pasture. The cows are a few feet away, bellowing their wide-eyed blend of curiosity and anxiety first at the river, then at us.

“Daddy, will the water reach the house?” my daughter asks with similar curiosity and anxiety.

Thankfully the pioneers that built the log portion of our farmhouse in 1853 were wise enough to keep it well away from — and above — the river. But as Northeast Iowa’s hills succumbed to the plow, by late century her creek and river bottoms were filling up with soil from those hills that could no longer soak up the rains.

Fast forward another half century, however, and a locally-led private land conservation movement was in full swing throughout Iowa. The perfect storm of Great Depression and Dust Bowl created new urgency around land stewardship and local economic resilience. Iowa authorized the formation of Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs) at the county level, which empowered local leadership and created a local-state-federal partnership to restore agricultural health and productivity.

Another perfect storm is now repeatedly threatening our cropland and our communities. The one-two punch of larger rain events and land use changes that increase runoff and flashiness, is putting every Iowa river community at risk.

While 10 percent or so of the U.S. population may be directly affected by sea level rise, the vast majority of Iowa towns and cities are river communities. We’re a state blessed (and only through our own failings, cursed) with water.

And yet I’m hopeful — why? Because floods should be the most preventable and manageable of all natural disasters. And because we’re very much a can-do culture. We have the opportunity to show the country how our unique blend of local leadership structures and local-state-federal partnership can solve our problems and create new assets in the process.

Two new “universal local” structures — along the lines of the SWCDs — hold tremendous potential for Iowans to reduce the destructive power of our floods. The Watershed Districts recently authorized by the legislature are in a perfect position to work closely with existing SWCDs, other local, state and federal partners and the ag community to address runoff and watershed flashiness. I’ll come back to this in a minute.

The Energy Districts taking root in Northeast Iowa (first Winneshiek, then Clayton, now Howard) are facilitating and accelerating a clean energy transition that is both climate stewardship and a powerful driver of local jobs and economies. State authorizing legislation would open the door for further replication, unleash tremendous local creativity and leadership, and make Iowa the first in the nation to enable this latest innovation in local-state-federal partnership.

We can argue til the cows come home about the drivers of climate change, but for now suffice it to note (as most farmers have noticed), that the 6-inch rain gauge over our strawberry bed needs to be replaced with something double that capacity. But we also need to realize that it’s not just bigger rains causing bigger floods, but land use change as well. That’s a hard truth but one with a very bright silver lining.

Commodity prices, federal programs and related forces have driven an increase in agricultural cropping intensity over the past decade that has conservationist, community leaders, and infrastructure managers very worried. Loss of perennial cover such as CRP, pasture and hay ground to continuous cropping, dramatic expansion of tiling, and in many counties the reversal of a half-century trend toward conservation tillage and no-till have increased runoff speed and volumes. Add that to bigger rain events, and as the Norwegians around here say — Uff Da!

But wait, I’m not finger pointing. Localism argues against circling the wagons, and toward locally-led solutions. We may have a perfect storm for increasingly severe floods, but we also have a growing arsenal of locally-led institutions — SWCDs, County Conservation Boards, Watershed Districts, increasingly Energy Districts, and the powerful partnerships they can build — capable of tackling the crisis.

While accelerated transition toward clean energy is our best hope of slowing or reversing the climate change and the trend toward “super-drenchers”, reversing the overall “watershed tillage intensity quotient” is our best hope of reducing flashiness and managing those big ones when they do hit, near future.

Nearly 80 percent of Iowa rain falls on our cropland. About 5 percent falls on developed land, and most of the rest on pastures, forests, ponds, and even a few prairies. The only way to prevent catastrophic flooding in every Iowa river community (sooner or later) in the new era of super-drencher storms is to turn every acre of cropland into a sponge, and for every farmer to take up the challenge of water farming.

Ironically, many past conservation programs and practices have focused on helping water OFF the field as quickly as possible … as long as it didn’t carry the soil with it. Now watershed districts and others are increasingly focused on floodwater retarding structures. But with rainfall totals nowadays topping twice the historical highs, we simply cannot engineer our way out of the perfect storm. Every acre must help.

Sure, few crop farmers like waterlogged soils. But the real challenge isn’t the know-how. We already have a wealth of practices that can manage moisture and maintain productivity on the vast majority of soils and acres, from no-till to cover cropping, rotations, and more. We have innovative farmers implementing these and many even more innovative practices — profitably — around the state. And we have deep technical, educational, and research resources available to support a future of water farmers.

The real challenge is: how do we get from here to there, quickly and universally? Are our communities, institutions and policymakers capable of collaboratively creating a road map and holding our collective feet to the fire to make change happen across the landscape? Because a few practices on a few farms here and there simply won’t do it — the roads and bridges will continue to wash out ever more quickly, and the dikes will increasingly be overtopped.

Which will be the first watershed in Iowa and the nation to move 100 percent beyond tillage? Will the newly forming Watershed Districts take up the full challenge? Will the legislature make Iowa the first state in the country to authorize locally led Energy Districts to lead the clean energy transition?

The challenge is daunting, yet I’m hopeful. Why? Because Iowa does local well. Localism played a major role leading us out of the last century’s perfect storm toward greater land and community resilience, and it can provide critical leadership in facing the perfect storms of the 21st Century. Universal local structures don’t work in a vacuum, but they’re where it all must start. They’re where we create our common vision, collectively take the bull by the horns, and bring the resources and dedication to make it happen.

This afternoon my 9- and 13-year-old daughters were out helping me fix the flood-damaged fences. After reconstructing a particularly challenging section I snapped a photo to send to my wife (living at the hospital attending births during the flood) and said, “there, job well done girls!” At which point my 9-year-old retorted — with that unique combination of twinkly smart-alek and questioning anxiety in her eyes and voice — “sure, until next time!”

We’re trying, I could only think to myself, we’re trying for you.

• Andy Johnson is Executive Director of the Winneshiek Energy District, and was previously a Conservationist with USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. He and his wife raise Christmas trees, grass-fed cattle and sheep, and daughters on their three-generation (including the daughters) farm along the Upper Iowa River in Winneshiek County.

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